They say that memories triggered by smell are the most powerful and long-lasting. Familiar odours can bring back, in depth and detail, experiences and places visited many years before.
As one website explains: “When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood.” This is called the olfactory memory. Fascinating stuff, I hear you say (or perhaps not), but so what?
Andalucia is replete with olfactory experiences such as azahar, sweet orange blossom, Seville’s spring smell. But one of the most intense I’ve ever had, seared into my memory, was on the recent Mr Henderson’s Railway gourmet hiking trip: the fig. I’ve never given much attention to this particular fruit – goes well with ham, used by the Victorians to make a dubious pudding. My father’s fig tree is famed locally for its prodigious harvests of the swollen purplish bulbs; but they always remind me of a livid bruise, and the visceral pulp is less than attractive. Visually, and in every other sense.
Walking the dogs in the fields near my house, on a late summer evening a few weeks ago, I became aware of a glorious scent. Warm and sweet, it encapsulated the sun-bathed Spanish countryside – soft and golden. After a while I realised it was coming from the higueras – our route takes us through a field of the huge-leaved fruit trees. None had figs, all having been mercilessly foraged by the crisis-hit locals. But the trees still smelled divine, nonetheless.
Back to Mr Henderson’s Railway – on day three of our Algeciras-to-Ronda trip, having eaten like kings in converted stations and cargo sheds along the line, and slept like queens in heavenly hotels (more on those soon), we hiked a 9km trail from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan. The trail runs alongside the historic train line (built by an English Lord, don’t you know) which follows the Guadiaro river. Two hours of full-on walking up and down hills on the hiking trail, with just a few seedy cookies for sustenance (thanks, Lidl), just about did me in. (You see, my idea of exercise is an hour’s gentle padel knock-about with another mum, or a slow ramble with children and aforementioned canine companions. Or, at a push, a bike ride showing tourists around Seville.)
It was hot that morning, though thankfully with ample shade from the trees lining the path, under which I rested my red-faced, sweating, exhausted self. We hardly met another soul, that’s how off-the-beaten-hiking-path this route is. Watching the train pass by, through tunnels and over bridges built by compatriots over a century ago, and the fabulous views of the river, railway and tree-covered slopes from the hillside path, made it all worthwhile. Just.
Then I felt that joyous little leap of finally glimpsing your destination at the end of an arduous journey (for me, at least) – in this case the village of Benoajan, across the river. As the track led downhill through the outlying houses towards the bridge, I caught a whiff of something sweet, and looked up. Hanging down above my head was a large, luscious, purple fig.
What a moment! The elation of completing the hike (everyone else had already finished – I was the last, but enjoyed indulging in this profoundly personal experience alone); the relief that I had survived without bruises, scratches or sprained joints; the anticipation of yet another fabulous meal just around the corner; the enveloping warmth of a September afternoon in Andalucia; and, dare I say it, the guilty frisson of being away from my children for so long – it was all wrapped up (no parma ham) in that fruit tree and its delectably rich, evocative, sun-drenched aroma.
And lunch, on the pretty, shady terrace of a converted mill, next to a stream and drenched with pink bouganvillea, vines heavy with grapes, and yet more fragrant fig trees, lived up to its expectations – delicately-flavoured, colourful salads, hearty pasta, and exquisite ice-cream to refuel after all that physical exertion, accompanied by some excellent dry moscatel wine (a recent discovery, well worth trying). And although I didn’t order it myself, I tried a friend’s fig salad. And, reader, I liked it.
What smell triggers your memory?